In the early 2000s, Salome "Sally" Mwangi lived in Nairobi, Kenya, with her then-husband, an Ethiopian political refugee. Being in the city, she said, was in some ways more dangerous than living in a refugee camp: Her husband was in the country legally, but he risked arrest—or worse. When he sought asylum in the United States, Mwangi accompanied him through the refugee immigration process. Their shared adventure is decidedly gripping, but Mwangi chose a different part of her life to highlight for her Human Library "book," entitled Write Your Own Obituary—one just as engrossing.
"[When my father] was 8 or 10 years old, he fell sick. My grandmother thought he was going to die. Since they didn't bury people then, my grandmother, as evening approached, took him out of the gate. She was sure that during the night he would die, and the wild animals from around the forest would dispose of his body," she said.
Her father didn't die, but Mwangi noted how "detached from death" her own culture was. Years later, after the death of a colleague from another part of Kenya, she would also note how mourners cried over and spoke to his body in its open casket.
"My book tells the story of death in my culture and death in the Luo culture, and how they deal with it," she said. "Even though we're both from Kenya, we deal with it in almost polar-opposite ways, where one is cold and detached, and the other is celebrating the life of the loved one."
Mwangi herself will speak at Storyfort on Wednesday, March 20, from 1-3:30 p.m., along with other Human Library "books," Caitie Fredrickson and Shadi Ismail, to discuss their involvement in the project at the Storyfort launch party. On Friday, March 22, from 3-7 p.m., six new books will make themselves available for "check-out," and on Saturday, March 23, Mwangi, Fredrickson, Shadi and three others will again be available as "books" from 1-5 p.m. Many of their stories involve prejudice and discrimination.
"I think Idaho is misunderstood as being homogenous, or that there's a majority. The diversity is there, it just needs to be highlighted and given an opportunity to have a valid seat at the table," said Dani Elizabeth, a program specialist for the Meridian Library District and an organizer of The Human Library. "I know that there's prejudice in communities, and there are misunderstandings of other cultures. We have a large portion of refugees and immigrants. Boise has been a safe haven."
The Human Library is a European import. Founded in 2000, it was developed in Copenhagen, Denmark, for the Roskilde Festival as a way to bridge social gaps, and fight bigotry and racism. The concept proved popular, and it has since been adapted around the world. It reached Idaho in 2017 when Ada Community Library and Ada Community Libraries held their first Human Library event, and since then, between 11 and 20 people have applied through the library each year to become books themselves, though relatively few are chosen to participate. This will be the first time The Human Library has been affiliated with Storyfort.
"Books" don't go into the experience empty-handed: They undergo training with one of Boise's celebrated storytellers, Matthew Melton of Story Story Studio. Mwangi is a member of the Idaho Office for Refugees' Refugee Speakers Bureau and has been trained in public address, but for Fredrickson, the training with Melton helped hone the story she wanted to tell.
"I wouldn't have known how to say what I wanted to say, or how to respond to certain questions—even what would be interesting to me versus what would be interesting to other people," she said. "Your stories should be hot to the touch. They should matter to you, but not be so hot that you become overly emotional. I definitely had a balance of both of those things where some things were too hot."
Fredrickson's story begins with her own childhood. She described herself as being a "really good kid." At least, that's how she behaved outside the house. At home, she was prone to extreme temper tantrums, panic attacks and mental breakdowns.
"I was putting a lot of energy into looking perfect outside my home, so by the time I got home I was exhausted," she said.
She left the Boise area for college in Chicago, and during her sophomore year, she "crashed, hard," and ended up in a mental institution 2,000 miles from home. She had been treated for depression, but a doctor at the hospital believed she was bipolar, and the antidepressants she was taking were making her situation worse. He put her on a mood stabilizer instead.
"It was like night and day," Fredrickson said. "I was so much better."
Today, Fredrickson is in a much more stable position. Her husband, who also has bipolar disorder, helped her through her rough patch in college, and she has now been seeing a therapist for two years. Cognitive behavioral therapy has helped her sidestep panic attacks and armed her with coping mechanisms. Her "book" is a wakeup call, explaining that though she presents as a likable, ordinary woman, her personal story has been tumultuous and difficult. For those who suffer, it's a reminder that they're not alone.
"The journey was really rough getting there. Getting to the place where I could be fine with being bipolar and knowing there's hope for people—I wanted to share that with other people," she said.Correction:
A previous version of this story indicated Jodi Eichelberger, not Matthew Melton, conducted storytelling training on "books." In fact, Eichelberger has only worked with Salome Mwangi.